Saturday, December 1, 2012

iTunes 11 Hands On Review

After delaying for a month, Apple finally released iTunes 11 on Thursday, 29 November, in both Mac and Windows versions. While many were hoping for a complete re-write, iTunes 11 is only a re-skinning of iTunes 10. Most of the old menus are carried over, although they are mostly hidden from view. The reason for this is Apple have dramatically simplified the UI, and iTunes brings a minimalistic, edge-to-edge design that is more in line with the iOS Music player, and is in-line with their policy of closing the gap between iOS and OS X. The iTunes Store has undergone a similar re-design, and now looks very similar to the App Store on the iPhone and iPad.

Over the years Apple have added more and more functionality to iTunes, and what started off as a simple music player has grown into a do-it-all media player and Store that is often criticised for being bloated and clunky. This latest version simplifies the UI, removing many features power users will miss, but does little to address the bloat of the underlying software.

Menus
In its default configuration the Menu Bar, Sidebar and Status Bar are all hidden from view, but are easily restored. From the little icon in the top left corner select "Show Menu Bar", then select "View" on the Menu Bar and select "Show Sidebar" and "Show Status Bar".

Up Next
I was a big user of the Auto DJ feature, and that too is gone, replaced by the new "Up Next". I mostly listen to playlists ordered by "least recently played", and with "live updating" turned on. Used in conjunction with Auto DJ this gave me a never ending flow of music depending on the playlist, which I could interrupt by inserting individual songs or albums as I chose. Depending on the settings chosen, the main window would then show me a brief history of what played recently, and what songs were scheduled next. The Up Next feature is accessed from an icon in the header, which opens a drop-down window which shows the 20 forthcoming songs. There is a little clock icon which, when clicked, will show your history. For some reason, the history view doesn't include the album art like it does in the forthcoming view. The Up Next window does allow you to re-order or delete songs, but this is not really a new feature, as it was available in Auto DJ.

Views

The "View" options for the main window vary depending on which Library you are looking at. The most obvious change is that cover-flow has been retired. The list view is a very drab grey-on-grey without it. The grid view shows a grid view of the album art, and when you click on an album it expands to show a list of the songs on the left, and the album art on the right. In a very nice, typically Apple touch, the background colour is adjusted according to the colour of the artwork, giving the impression you are looking at the CD cover folded flat. From this view you can easily add complete albums or individual songs into the Up Next queue. Unfortunately, this view can't be used as the "Now Playing" view in the main window.

The grid view in the other Libraries has also lost the ability to re-size the artwork. In Movies, this is particularly annoying, as the artwork is quite big, so you have to do quite a lot of scrolling if you have a large collection.

Overall, the new views are a great way to search for the media you might want to play, but not quite as good as iTunes 10 was for displaying it. I did discover that double clicking the artwork in the header brought up a new window showing the album art, that also doubles as a mid-sized player. Mouse over the artwork brings up play and volumes controls. Nice!

Mini Player
One of the big improvements in iTunes 11 is the MiniPlayer, which now also features search, as well as the icon to bring up the Up Next window. In this view the Up Next window doesn't disappear when you click somewhere else on the screen.

Search
Another big improvement is the new Search Library feature. As soon as you start typing a drop down window starts adding matching titles, broken down into Songs, Albums, Movies, Podcasts, etc. Directly from this window you can add items to Up Next, or access the menu, from which you can change your rating, add to a playlist, etc. This new Search is exceptionally powerful!

iCloud
Apple continue to improve iCloud integration in all its products, and with iTunes 11 you can now stream any content you have purchased from the Store without having to download it first. iTunes will now also sync your place in movies and TV shows, so if you start playing them on your Mac and pause playback, you can then switch to your iPad and pick up the video from right where you left off.

Syncing
Syncing is much the same as before, but the Summary screen gives a lot more information than before. My only complaint that iTunes still seems to lose contact with my iDevices, despite them being on the same Wi-Fi network. This was a bug that I hoped would be fixed in iTunes 11.

Conclusion
I do miss the cover-flow view, and I'm still not sure whether Up Next is as useful as Auto DJ, but overall there is a lot to like about iTunes 11. The new MiniPlayer and Search are both very powerful, and little touches like the Album View are great new features. iTunes may not be for everyone, and many people will be critical of the changes, but overall I like it.

Thanks for reading.